The Wound and the Blessing

print by Jack Baumgartner

print by Jack Baumgartner

When I began writing this meditation on Jacob wrestling with God and its implications for the spiritual life, I did not intend it to be another essay on suffering. Yet the theme came of its own accord, and has some continuity with thoughts posted here, here, and here.

The story, found in Genesis 32, should be familiar. Jacob, traveling to meet his estranged brother Esau, camps alone at the ford of Jabbok.

And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.

The stranger is usually seen in the Christian tradition as Christ himself. Perhaps the most conventional moral interpretation emphasizes Jacob’s persistence. In refusing to let God go, he receives a blessing; so also must we be persistent in prayer and struggle in faith. Another, almost opposite interpretation sees the struggle as God destroying our willfulness, teaching us to submit and “let God.” But these readings in themselves make little sense of the most striking aspects of the text.

My own exegesis of this passage focuses on the wound, which I first began to contemplate after reading a passage in Scott Cairns’s memoir Short Trip to the Edge. Here, an ordinary Athonite monk uses the story of Jacob and the stranger to illustrate for Cairns a mystery of the life of prayer.

[Father Iakovos] placed a hand on his chest, just above his abdomen. “You have to hold on to Him,” he said, “with all your strength…. You have to plead with Him to meet you here…. And when He arrives, you must hold on to Him and not let go. Like Jacob,” he said, “you must hold on to Him…. And like Jacob,” he met my eyes with new intensity, “you will be wounded. Like Jacob, you must say, ‘I will not let You go unless you bless me,’ and then the wound, the tender hip thereafter, the blessing…. He is everything,” Father Iakovos continued, “and ever-present. He is never not here,” he said, touching his upper abdomen, “but when you plead to know He’s here, and when He answers you, and helps you to meet Him here, you will be wounded by that meeting. The wound will help you know, and that is the blessing.” (136-137)

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In Horto Fragranti: On the Feast of the Transfiguration

Today, August 6, the western church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The eastern church will celebrate the same feast in thirteen days. In much of the east, including Georgia, custom dictates that growers of grapes and other fruits and vegetables present their harvest to be blessed on Transfiguration Day. Most of these grapes, which depending on their geography reach peak ripeness in August, will be turned into wine.

What does this custom, dating back to late antiquity, have to do with the transfiguration of Christ described by the synoptic gospels?

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In Horto Fragranti: Genesis 18

The title of this and future meditations on Scripture, In Horto Fragranti, means “in the fragrant garden” and refers to John of Damascus’s description of the Bible as a fragrant garden in which are the fountains of life.

In Genesis 18, Moses describes a meeting at the oaks of Mamre. Three “angels,” one of them the concealed Lord, pass near where Abraham, a wealthy nomadic chieftain, has pitched his tents. Abraham looks up and sees three travelers caught in the heat of the day, and urges them to partake of his hospitality before continuing on their way. They agree.

Abraham was recently circumcised in covenant with God. Thus Abraham legally and sacramentally committed himself and his descendants to God; he was reborn under a new name which God gave him, as God had given Adam his name. Now Abraham was consecrated as the father of many nations, biologically the father of Israel through Isaac, and spiritually the father of the Church through Christ. God has already made the shepherd-prince great promises.

Now the cosmic sovereign orchestrates a more intimate encounter than has yet taken place between himself and his new vassal. Food is of no material use to spiritual beings, let alone the transcendent Creator; yet the Lord consents to share bread, curds, milk, and the meat of a calf, and also to have his feet washed. (Years later, Christ returns the favor.)

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